Censorship, supervision and control of the information and ideas that are circulated among the people within a society. In modern times, censorship refers to the examination of books, periodicals, plays, films, television and radio programs, news reports, and other communication media for the purpose of altering or suppressing parts thought to be objectionable or offensive. The objectionable material may be considered immoral or obscene, heretical or blasphemous, seditious or treasonable, or injurious to the national security. Thus, the rationale for censorship is that it is necessary for the protection of three basic social institutions: the family, the church, and the state.

Until recently, censorship was firmly established in various institutional forms in even the most advanced democratic societies. By the mid-20th century a revolutionary change in social attitudes and societal controls weakened the existence and strength of censorship in many democracies; however, all forms of censorship have not been universally eliminated. Today many persons, including some civil libertarians, object to the “new permissiveness”in the arts and mass media; they claim it debases the public taste, corrupts all sense of decency and civility, and even undermines civilization.

In nondemocratic societies censorship is a dominant and all-pervasive force, felt on all levels of artistic, intellectual, religious, political, public, and personal life. Hardly any act, expression, or relationship is exempt from official surveillance and accountability.

Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, says nothing explicitly about the right of freedom from censorship, certain articles, if strictly observed, would tend to mitigate the rigor of censorship in nondemocratic countries. Among such provisions are those that prohibit interference with a person’s home, family, privacy, or correspondence, and those that provide for the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, and expression without interference. Thus, the worldwide struggle for human rights often involves problems of censorship as well as the fate of those dissidents who are its victims. (1)

The Censorship contents in this legal Encyclopedia includes: Censorship, Censorship Early History, Early Greek Censorship, Early Roman Censorship, Early Church Censorship (including Roman Catholic Censorship and Protestant Censorship), Censorship in the World, Censorship and Religious Toleration and Government Censorship. See an overview of the U.S. treatment of Censorship here.

Early History

Censorship and the ideology supporting it go back to ancient times. Every society has had customs, taboos, or laws by which speech, play, dress, religious observance, and sexual expression were regulated.

Greek Censorship

See History of Censorship here

In Athens, where democracy first flourished, Socrates preferred to sacrifice his life rather than accept censorship of his teachings. Charged with the worship of strange gods and with the corruption of the youth he taught, Socrates defended free discussion as a supreme public service. He was thus the first person to formulate a philosophy of intellectual freedom. Ironically, his disciple Plato was the first philosopher to formulate a rationale for intellectual, religious, and artistic censorship.

Roman Censorship

See History of Censorship here

In Rome the general attitude was that only persons in authority, particularly members of the Senate, enjoyed the privilege of speaking freely. Public prosecution and punishment, supported by popular approval, occurred frequently. The Roman poets Ovid and Juvenal were both banished. Authors of seditious or scurrilous utterances or writings were punished. The emperor Caligula, for example, ordered an offending writer to be burned alive, and Nero deported his critics and burned their books.

Church Censorship

See History of Censorship here

In AD 313 the Roman emperor Constantine the Great decreed toleration of Christianity. Twenty years later, Constantine the Great set the pattern of religious censorship that was to be followed for centuries by ordering the burning of all books by the Greek theologian Arius.

Roman Catholic Censorship

See History of Censorship here

After the emperor Theodosius made Christianity the established religion of the empire, the Roman government and the church began to persecute both pagans and Christian heretics who deviated from orthodox doctrine or practice. The pope was recognized as the final authority in church doctrine and government, and the secular state used force to compel obedience to his decisions. Books or sermons that were opposed to orthodox faith or morals were prohibited, and their authors were punished. The first catalog of forbidden books was issued by Pope Gelasius in 496. Individual heretical books were subsequently forbidden by special papal edicts. Censorship in this period was concerned primarily with suppressing heresy. For the purpose of punishing all such manifestations, Pope Gregory IX instituted the Inquisition in 1231. For almost 500 years the Inquisition remained an influential agency of religious censorship.

Protestant Censorship

See History of Censorship here

The Protestant Reformation did not itself erect a change in the practice of censorship. Its leaders—among them John Calvin, John Knox, and Martin Luther—claimed liberty of conscience and toleration only for themselves and their followers. When in power, they too attempted to suppress all deviation from their own brands of orthodoxy; they persecuted Protestant heretics and Roman Catholics.

Censorship in the Modern World

See History of Censorship here

The 18th century marks the beginning of the modern period, with its emphasis on toleration and liberty—a beginning that reflects the influence of the Age of Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions (see Enlightenment, Age of). Although the new spirit of liberty was first felt in the area of religious belief, it rapidly affected political life, science, and literature. The United States, France, and England set the pattern and the pace. The Declaration of Independence (1776), the U.S. Constitution (1787) with its Bill of Rights (1789-91), and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) became models for the modern world. In England Roman Catholics were freed of all disabilities in 1829; Jews achieved the same freedom in 1858.

Religious Toleration

In modern democratic countries, certain basic constitutional principles are generally accepted: A person’s religious beliefs and forms of worship are matters of strictly private conscience, into which no government act or official may intrude; no religious requirements may be stipulated for any public office or benefit; and the state and religion are independent of each other. Although these principles do not resolve all problems, and perplexing questions must be faced continually, the principles have established peaceful relations between the government and religious systems in truly democratic societies. The situation was quite different in Communist countries such as the USSR, where religion was not at all, or only grudgingly, recognized, and atheism was the established ideology. Another exception is the kind of theocracy established in Iran after the 1979 revolution with the institution of an Islamic republic.

Government Censorship

See Government Censhorip, including in Europe, here.

In England religious conflict bred general intolerance, which resulted in censorship that embraced political as well as religious expression. At a time when religion dominated society, every aspect of life was necessarily subject to official control. In 1662, for instance, a licensing act created a surveyor of the press who had power to investigate and suppress unauthorized publications. The Toleration Act and the Bill of Rights in 1689 dealt with important personal liberties but said nothing about freedom from censorship. To publish an unfavorable opinion of the government was still a “seditious libel.”As the 18th century began, however, English newspapers became more numerous, books on a greater variety of subjects were published, and arbitrary censorship was slowly reduced. Freedom of the press came about gradually as a result of judicial decisions and popular opposition to political oppression.

Except for a brief period in France after the Revolution of 1789, political censorship continued to flourish in continental Europe until the rise of republican governments in the mid-19th century. In the 1930s a new wave of political censorship swept Europe, especially in the totalitarian regimes of Germany, Italy, and Spain. Since the end of World War II, however, political censorship has diminished in Western nations.

State censorship remained severe in the Soviet Union and other countries where political opposition is suppressed by permitting the existence of only one party. One-party nations determine directly the ideas and information to be published, circulated, and taught. When publishers, authors, or broadcasters are adjudged to have trespassed the political or moral boundaries set by law or administrative edict, they may be arbitrarily punished by fines, imprisonment, confiscation of their publication, prohibition of future publications, or closing of the medium of communication.

Rating countries on a scale ranging from 1 (most free) to 15 (least free), a survey published by Freedom House in the late 1980s disclosed that 60 countries comprising about 2 billion people enjoyed the highest degrees of freedom (1-5). In these countries—which were concentrated in North America and Western Europe but which also included Japan, Australia, and New Zealand—individuals generally had the right to bring about peaceful changes in government, enjoyed freedom of speech and press, and had free access to other mass communications. Another 39 countries with about 1 billion people received rankings of between 6 and 10, while 68 countries with 2.1 billion people had forms of government that denied citizens most political and civil rights.

Much attention was focused on censorship in the USSR and other Communist countries. Exiles from the former Soviet Union have disclosed the severe persecution to which they were subjected. Among such exiles were literary personalities and scientists, such as Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, and Andrey D. Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. Their world recognition and acclaim did not prevent the Soviet government from attempting to suppress their work and persecute them.

By the late 1980s, however, the Soviet Union under President Mikhail Gorbachev had relaxed government censorship of the media as part of a more general reform movement, and other Eastern-bloc countries were also affected. The increase in freedom soon led to the overthrow of the Soviet Union and several other Communist governments by long-suppressed dissident forces.

The Communist countries have not been the only ones to impose control over thought and expression in modern times. In the mid-1970s India imposed strict censorship as part of an alleged state of emergency, while Argentina virtually suspended the importation of all foreign publications. Even in democratic France, the government started criminal proceedings in 1980 against the newspaper Le Monde for publishing five articles in the preceding three years that allegedly cast discredit on French courts. These are only a few examples of the censorship that has been imposed on people in nations around the world.

Censorship in the United States

See Censorship in the United States here.

Censorship of Obscenity

Until about the mid-20th century government policies provided for the strict suppression of obscene publications. The test, as developed in Great Britain and substantially followed in the U.S., was whether the publication “tended … to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.”The law was invoked against works of recognized merit as well as against pornographic publications. Successful prosecutions were common, as were seizures of books by post office, customs, and police officials.

The beginning of a new legal approach may be traced to the action of the federal courts in the 1930s, when they held that the Irish author James Joyce’s Ulysses was not obscene and could be freely passed through customs. The courts ruled that the use of “dirty words”in “a sincere and honest book”did not make the book “dirty.”Since the 1950s many obscenity cases—involving books, magazines, and films—have been brought before the Supreme Court. In the cases during the 1970s the Court ruled that laws against obscenity must be limited “to works which, taken as a whole, appeal to the prurient interest in sex; which portray sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and which, taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”The Court has further held that obscenity should be determined by applying “contemporary community standards”rather than national standards.

Current Problems and Trends

In the 20th century, as in all previous history, freedom from censorship has been the exception in the world. The rule has been, and continues to be, repression, suppression, and oppression. It may, however, be considered a sign of political and social progress that, everywhere in the world, at least lip-service is paid to the ideal of liberty, and that no country brazenly admits that it is committed to a policy of religious, intellectual, artistic, or political censorship. This is apparent in the many covenants and declarations that have been passed in support of freedom and human rights; these include the UN Charter (1945), the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the UN Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966), the European Convention on Human Rights (1953), the Helsinki Final Act (1975), and the American (Western Hemisphere) Convention on Human Rights (1978).

Censorship in the Digital Age the World Over, the Law and other Social Sciences

Censorship is found in all human societies, but is of increasing concern and complexity in the modern, digital age. this topic explores the history of censorship, current concerns surrounding censorship, organizations and agencies working against censorship, potential solutions, and future research in this area of study. Though censorship is unlikely to ever disappear completely, all individuals can and should be aware of it and contribute to the overall social dialogue on issues of censorship.[2]

Censorship in Constitutional Law

From the Comparative Constitutions Project: The action of suppressing in whole or in part something that is considered politically or morally objectionable.

The Legal History of Censorship

This section provides an overview of Censorship in history.

Censorship and freedom of expression

See in this encyclopedia.

Censorship and freedom of information

See in this encyclopedia.

Censorship, Sexual Behaviour and the Law

Prior restraint

See in this encyclopedia.

Censorship and international law

See in this encyclopedia.

Censorship and the media

See in this encyclopedia.

Censorship and obscenity

See in this encyclopedia.

Censorship in practice

See in this encyclopedia.


Notes and References

  1. Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  2. Kari Weaver, “Censorship in the Digital Age the World Over” (Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, 4th Edition, Information Resources Management Association, 2018)

See Also

  • Civil Liberty
  • Civil Right
  • Legal Right
  • Citizen Freedom
  • Political Liberty
  • Constitutional Right
  • Political Right
  • Freedom of Speech
  • Obscenity
  • Prior restraint

Freedom of Expression, Restriction on Media; Freedom of press, media law

Further Reading

Hierarchical Display of Censorship

Education And Communications > Communications > Communications policy > Control of communications
Education And Communications > Information and information processing > Information policy > Access to information > Confidentiality
Law > Rights and freedoms > Political rights > Freedom of communication
Education And Communications > Information and information processing > Information policy > Law relating to information
Law > Rights and freedoms > Political rights > Freedom of communication > Freedom of the press
Law > Rights and freedoms > Political rights > Freedom of expression


Concept of Censorship

See the dictionary definition of Censorship.

Characteristics of Censorship

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Translation of Censorship

Thesaurus of Censorship

Education And Communications > Communications > Communications policy > Control of communications > Censorship
Education And Communications > Information and information processing > Information policy > Access to information > Confidentiality > Censorship
Law > Rights and freedoms > Political rights > Freedom of communication > Censorship
Education And Communications > Information and information processing > Information policy > Law relating to information > Censorship
Law > Rights and freedoms > Political rights > Freedom of communication > Freedom of the press > Censorship
Law > Rights and freedoms > Political rights > Freedom of expression > Censorship

See also